First the disappointing news: Jimmy Ellis, the veteran alto saxophonist who had been listed as guest soloist with drummer Isaiah Spencer's band at Andy's Jazz Club, wasn't there on Friday night.
Though Spencer and Andy's management offered different explanations, the result was the same: Listeners didn't get to hear a much-admired octogenarian who has been largely absent from our stages for the past year or so – hence the wide interest in this engagement. Ellis studied with the legendary Capt. Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and, at this point, any performance he gives commands attention.
Here's hoping we get to hear him again soon.
In his place, however, an up-and-coming Chicago alto saxophonist fronted Isaiah Spencer's Organ Dynasty, so Friday night's first set pointed toward the future rather than the past. Christopher McBride has been appearing with increasing frequency in Chicago's clubs and concert halls, often in the company of trumpeter Marquis Hill, with whom McBride has an obvious affinity.
This time, though, McBride stood stage center, backed by Spencer's characteristically volcanic drums, Ben Paterson's Hammond B-3 organ and Lee Rothenberg's guitar. These young musicians collaborated persuasively with one another, and McBride stated his case with as much confidence as finesse.
Though McBride can sound a lot edgier than he did on this occasion, the saxophonist and his colleagues catered to mainstream tastes. Within that context, however, McBride proved quite effective in various tempos and jazz idioms.
The band established the fairly conservative tone for the music yet to come with the opening selection, the standard "There Will Never Be Another You." But great tunes never sound old, and McBride reaffirmed the point with the warmth of his tone and the poetry of his phrasings. By repeatedly sliding up to key pitches, he gave the music a yearning quality that was thoroughly appropriate to the tune at hand.
Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" enabled the musicians to turn up the heat a bit more, McBride cutting loose with fast-flying notes and a big-and-bluesy sound. Throughout, Spencer heightened rhythmic tension through the hard-edged attacks that are his stock-in-trade.
By the time the band eased into a classic blues, the musicians were speaking the same, gutsy language. With Spencer laying down a shuffle beat and Rothenberg and Paterson locking in, McBride was free to take flight. His solos bristled with melodic invention and harmonic complexity, but never at the expense of musicality.
In the ballad "Smile," the musicians showed considerable maturity, daring to understate the case. If they didn't achieve quite the muscularity and energy one might have hoped to hear in Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," they certainly aimed high.
In a way, McBride was a nearly ideal fill-in for Ellis, this show reminding listeners that as one generation slowly departs the scene, others are eager and ready to take up the cause.
Bravo for that.
Isaiah Spencer's Organ Dynasty plays at 5, 6 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10-$15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.